First Hurricane Harvey, now Hurricane Irma, next week Hurricane Jose, and even Hurricane Katia is being teased. Cities have been destroyed, lives have been lost, hundreds of billions of dollars in damages are being tallied. Yet media has largely chosen to dwell on the imagery of catastrophe instead of the analysis of why these storms keep happening and what can be done about it.
How does the media sensationalize natural disasters?
We are going to look at three outlets. First, CNN, which is has a long history of turning news worthy events into mere spectacle. Then we will look at Fox News, to contrast how two competing networks with vastly different ideologies pursue the same lowest common denominator angles on the hurricanes. Then we will look at the New York Times as the adult in the room this week.
CNN is treating the hurricane events as pure spectacle. The news is sensationalized. The focus is on the destruction, fear, and life-or-death stakes of the hurricanes making landfall. And they are covering the spectacle from all angles.
Let’s note that CNN rose to prominence in the 90s by dedicating round-the-clock coverage to the OJ Simpson murder trial. Of the OJ trial, the Washington Post noted, “CNN had made the bold decision to cover every turn of the case, no matter how meaningless. Back then, this was revolutionary and maybe even a little risky; never had one news event been covered so continually.”
That same ethos carries forth today at CNN. Hurricanes, disasters, Trump rallies – all play well on camera and do not require analysis to be engaging.
Here is an image of their front page Friday afternoon:
The main “story” – “TRIPLE THREAT” is really just a blog post of about 150 words. No substance, no analysis.
But notice the story beneath the featured image, “As Hurricane Irma churns toward Florida, Jose strengthens in the Atlantic and Katia nears Mexico.” See how CNN has serialized natural disasters like they are Marvel movies? They implicitly invite you to stay tuned to the sequel.
The links all capitalize on the sensationalism. Three of them are image/video based to see the wreckage. The other two focus on the fleeing exodus and damage done to Caribbean islands. The stories feature comic book verbiage to detail how communities have been “pummeled” and “slammed” leaving 24 killed this week.
Fox News pursues the same ends as CNN. Despite the literary allusion of “PARADISE LOST,” Fox pursues sensationalism devoid of thought.
Fox currently has ten unique stories on the hurricanes. Here’s the breakdown:
1.) Headliner story on the damage done in the Caribbean
2) Story on Jose/Katia (next week’s episode)
3) Story on expected damage in Florida
4/5) Two story features on individual experiences in the storm
6) A flashback to a storm in 1900 that killed a lot of people
7/8) Two gossipy posts on the storm – one featuring plenty of pictures from a swimsuit model’s Instagram page, and the other from Fox-despised Hollywood icon, Jennifer Lawrence
9/10) Photo blog posts of damages
The themes adopted by Fox are very similar to CNN. The posts are heavy on images of destroyed houses. The descriptions of the storm are confined to wind speeds and death counts. Notice how Fox even digs up a historical event for those wondering about previous hurricanes that have killed people. They also feature fear in posts about how individuals prepare.
In fact, the only mention of climate change comes in the Fox post on Jennifer Lawrence. The one titled, “Jennifer Lawrence suggests Trump to blame for hurricane.” With a headline like that, it is not likely readers will receive her rationale well – which is that Trump has ignored climate change. Fox News is the one to draw that a step farther by stating she blames Trump for the hurricanes.
New York Times:
The first thing to note is that the New York Times is opting for a very different strategy in their coverage of the storm. CNN and Fox News have television networks. Thus, their online coverage is really supplemental to the intense resources and attention they are pouring into their television production. By contrast, The New York Times has a broader bureau of reporters who surpass CNN and Fox’s written coverage. So this is really an example of CNN/Fox doing what they do best (TV) and the Times doing what it does best (Written Reporting).
The feature story on the Times front page is “Get Out Before It’s Too Late, Florida Warns” which links to a regularly updated series of blog posts. Is it sensational? Yes. Is it different from CNN/Fox? Yes. Where the TV networks’ coverage does not extend beyond wind speeds and death tolls, the Times does not dwell on either.
Instead, the Times blog posts draw heavily upon statements put out by key stakeholders across the storm’s path. Here is a list of sources the Times has built their blog posts around in the last few hours: Governor Rick Scott, FEMA administrator Brock Long, an assistant superintendent with the police in Mayaguana (one of the first areas hit by the hurricane), the CEO of Florida Light & Power company, a spokesman for flight tracking website Flightradar24, the Prime Minister of Barbuda, the Governor of Puerto Rico, etc.
The result of this difference is that the New York Times presents the effects of the storm and the response to the storm as given by the leaders of government and infrastructure. CNN and Fox can show houses being torn apart and reporters broadcasting in sheets of rain. But would you agree it is more informative to know which counties have mandatory evacuations and that nine million people are expected to lose power?
How should media cover historic hurricanes?
Journalism 101 teaches reporters to cover the who, what, where, why, when and how of a story. CNN and Fox are opting to cover the what, where, when and arguably the who. But if storms are going to destroy Houston, entire communities in the Caribbean, and soon Florida, shouldn’t they at least attempt to answer the why and how?
The New York Times has a little article explaining why storm recovery costs have skyrocketed in the last several decades (and will continue to do so in the future). The answer in the article is largely because of increased development closer to shores with insufficient infrastructure.
The key quote from the story is, “Those stark numbers, Mr. Pielke [developed damages calculator for NOAA] said, suggest that even before considering the effects of climate change, ‘more $100 billion disasters are probably in our future – and we need to think harder how to prepare for them.’
Why isn’t climate change mentioned more?
It also appears to be a colossal failure not to mention climate change when covering the storms. “Storms of the century” should not occur with this frequency. Climate change has clearly led to warmer water which leads to more severe storms. In this respect, climate change is a pretty big piece of the “why.” It can also lead to answers on adaptation for the next inevitable storm and mitigation techniques that already exist.
One reason climate change has been largely absent is because most scientists would say it is a bridge to far to state unequivocally, “We have climate change, therefore we had Harvey destroy Houston.” Media depends on finding experts, particularly involved and well known ones, to state reasons succinctly. To lack that expert makes it difficult to propel that angle. Moreover, even if several climate scientists were willing to make that declaration, they would face criticism from many other scientists arguing that the declaration went too far.
Does that mean climate change should be ignored? Probably not. It will likely be written about in the aftermath, which is itself a shame because a new headline cycle will bury that coverage.
What can be done?
This is difficult because it is largely a media problem. It helps to share articles from sources that do cover the disasters more thoughtfully. Slate and Vox have both been more vocal about the role climate change plays. Oh, and Rush Limbaugh has too, albeit by declaring climate change a hoax, then evacuating himself from Florida.
You can also write letters to the editor of news organizations. Let them know you think it is a valuable angle worth covering.
Doing something is the only way to solve anything.